Kentucky Seat Still Disputed Over Residency Restriction

The brass plaque on the desk in the Kentucky Capitol reads, "Dana Seum Stephenson - Senator." Each day, the clerk calls the roll, "Sen. Seum Stephenson." (search)

The seat is empty and no one answers.

Stephenson is a senator in name only, under a court order that forbids her to attend any legislative session, vote or take a salary. Three months after the election, questions about Stephenson's residency have left her working-class district in Louisville without a senator.

Over the past few weeks, her fellow Republicans have been scorned for trying to seat her despite the questions, and one GOP senator has quit the party in protest and declared himself an independent.

The dispute - which will be heard by the Kentucky Supreme Court (search) at a date to be determined - started on Nov. 1, the day before the election, when Democrat Virginia Woodward (search) went to court to claim that Stephenson, her Republican opponent in the state Senate race, did not meet the requirement in the Kentucky Constitution that says candidates must be a resident of the state for six years before the election.

The next day, Stephenson beat Woodward by about 1,000 votes, according to unofficial returns.

Once the lawsuit made its way before a judge, the evidence was substantial that Stephenson, 32, lived in Indiana from 1997 to 2001. She bought a house, moved in, and enrolled at an Indiana university to pursue a master's degree. She paid in-state tuition. She voted in Indiana in the 1998 and 2000 elections. She got an Indiana driver's license in 1997 and kept it until 2001. She was purged from Kentucky's voter rolls in 1998 for failing to vote and did not re-register until 2001.

Stephenson countered that she always owned property in Kentucky, too, and intended to make her home there and never left her teaching position at a Louisville high school.

A judge was unconvinced and directed election officials to count only Woodward's votes. While the courts continually sided with Woodward, the political process took a different tack.

Stephenson appealed directly to the Senate to seat her, where her fellow Republicans - including her lawmaker father - hold the majority.

A randomly drawn special committee had a majority of Democrats, which concluded Stephenson was not qualified. But when the matter got to the full Senate, Republicans overruled the recommendation and voted largely along party lines to seat Stephenson.

Senate President David Williams said the Senate alone is empowered to determine the qualifications of its members. Williams said, for example, that despite the constitutional requirement that a senator be 30 years old, the Senate could vote to seat a 23-year-old.

"If 20 people in this body voted that someone was 30 years old, no court in the land could overturn that," Williams said.

Stephenson was seated, but within a week, a judge did intervene, ordering that Stephenson could not take any official action as a senator.

Williams' comments drew a firestorm.

"Rather than clarify the legal issue for us, Williams acts as Senate Mad Hatter with his signature Cheshire Cat demeanor. Dana Seum Stephenson plays a disingenuous Queen of Hearts and the members of the Queen's court (better known as the Senate Republican caucus) would have us believe that residency as a citizen means only physically residing," one letter writer said in The Courier-Journal.

Republican Sen. Bob Leeper said the partisan display was so egregious that he quit the party. (It was Leeper's switch from Democrat to Republican five years ago that gave the GOP its first-ever majority in the Kentucky Senate.)

With Leeper's change and the empty seat, there are 21 Republicans, 15 Democrats and an independent in the 38-member Senate. The switch and the empty seat may be especially damaging to the GOP because it takes 23 votes to pass tax or spending legislation in the current session.

Woodward said she has received overwhelming support in her quest and it has only increased since the Senate's actions and Williams' comments. "They are appalled that anyone would state that, with the right amount of votes, they could make 23 into 30," she said.

For her part, Stephenson did not return repeated calls for an interview. Except for a brief appearance in the gallery a few weeks ago, she has stayed away from Frankfort.

"There's no reason to upset the judges and go to jail," she said then.